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A Few Portuguese Idioms

By Tiago Marcelo

I do a lot of translation work on my website at and one of the things that people ask me via e-mail is what the many typical Portuguese sayings actually mean.

Coming from Portugal myself, I can tell you that Portuguese people have a lot of very unique proverbs and idioms; an exhaustive list would be very difficult to compile. Instead, I'm going to explain the ones that I think are the most common.

I'm also going to ignore idioms and proverbs that have a very obvious equivalent in English.

Let's start with a very common Portuguese idiom: bicho de sete cabeçasseven-headed beast.

Take for example this sentence: escrever é uma arte, mas também não é nenhum bicho de sete cabeças. This literally means writing is an art, but it isn't a seven-headed beast.

Bicho de sete cabeças means something that is very complicated. It is very similar to the English phrase the very devil, which is used in a similar fashion (for example: writing is the very devil itself).

Another interesting one is carta fora do baralhocard out of the set. This is used when someone is irrelevant, written off, insignificant, and so on. So for example, the sentence é difícil sentir-se uma carta fora do baralho means it's hard to feel written off.

Atirar-se de cabeça, which means to plunge head first, is often used when someone is about to enter a new and potentially difficult or dangerous situation. Vou atirar me de cabeça e ver o que acontece means I'm gonna plunge head first and see what happens.

Another very common Portuguese idiom is falar pelos cotovelos, which literally means speak by the elbows. It's used when someone speaks too much. The British equivalent of this expression would be talk nineteen to the dozen and the American one would be talk a blue streak.

This expression is a metaphor (you can't actually talk through your elbows). When you're walking alongside someone and they're talking a lot and you're not listening to a single word, they will often touch your elbows to get your attention. An example: João continuou a falar pelos cotovelos querendo conquistar a simpatia da sua bela anfitriã means John kept talking a blue streak wanting to gain the affection of his beautiful hostess.

Rabo entre as pernas literally means tail between the legs. Take for example the sentence ele correu com o rabo entre as pernas como um cobarde, meaning he ran with his tail between his legs like a coward.

Frightened animals will often run with their tail between their legs and that's where this expression comes from. It means frightened or cowardly.

Another interesting expression is sem eira nem beira, which literally means without land or roof. It means destitute or penniless. For example, eu voltei a Portugal sem eira nem beira means I returned to Portugal without land or roof.

About the writer

Tiago is originally from Portugal but now lives in Spain. He enjoys writing about languages.


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